When there is a death of a loved one it can bring on a mix of emotions and it can be difficult for many adults to cope with a loss. There is no right way to grieve and different people can react differently, and it is no different in children. As a child, the task is much harder as they navigate their emotions while also trying to wrap their heads around what death really means. That is why it is important to talk to children about death carefully, simply, and with compassion.
Use Words They Can Understand When You Talk to Children About Death
Children are not little adults and they are still learning about the world around them so the idea of never seeing someone again may be difficult to comprehend. Use words and concepts that they can understand and that are age appropriate. Using terms like “moved on”, “passed away”, or “crossed over” may be lost on a child and confuse them further. Simple is better. Stick to “dead” and “death”, if possible. It’s ok to tell them that sometimes people die suddenly or sometimes we can expect it because they have been very sick, just don’t make it confusing by going into too much detail.
Speak slowly when you talk to children about death. This is a technique that can be used on children and adults alike that may be in shock from a death. Be slow and deliberate with your words, but with genuine emotion so as not to sound condescending.
Remember, that they may not remember everything they are told at first because the concepts may be confusing, overwhelming, or they are too emotional to pay attention to details.
Explain The Next Steps
If the child has not experienced a death before, the next week or more could be overwhelming for them. Give them an idea of what they can expect. There may be people they don’t know coming in and out offering condolences. Also, funerals, wake, and burials can be overwhelming, and potentially traumatic. Give the child a play-by-play of what they can expect. Keep in mind that they may need these steps repeated throughout the process.
Friends, family, and well-wishers may give their condolences to the child and they should be prepared for that step too. They may be dealing with big emotions that they don’t know how to talk about, or even sort out. If they are feeling overwhelmed with any number of emotions and cannot handle the attention and conversation with others, give them permission to excuse themselves. When you talk to children about death, provide them with phrases that they can use when they are overwhelmed or uncomfortable. For example, they can say that they need a few minutes alone and let them have space designated to do that.
Listen, Answer, and Support When You Talk to Children About Death
A child that has just lost a beloved pet, friend, or family member may be in shock at first. A talkative child may suddenly become quiet or stare off into the distance. This is a normal response. Feeling shocked, angry, or withdrawn are just some of the reactions to expect. No matter what the child’s reaction may be, offer comfort and support. Listen to their feelings and answer their questions honestly. It may be difficult, as you are grieving also, but if your child reacts unexpectedly, stay calm. The child may be looking to you for cues and support. As they work their way through the stages of grief they may have more questions or may forget answers they were given earlier. Listen, answer, and support.
Let Them Participate in the Process
Just because they are a child does not mean that they should be sheltered from the rituals of celebrating someone’s life. If the child is capable of handling it, let them participate in the process. Even small things can become a positive memory years later. They can help pick out flowers, let them sign the visitor book at the wake, or do a reading at the funeral. As your child grows they will likely experience multiple deaths of people close to them. The first death is an opportunity to prepare them for how to handle future loss when you may not be there in the future to help them through the process.
Help Them Celebrate The Life
Children of many ages can participate in celebration of life. If a memorial service is being held they can participate in an age appropriate way. A celebration of life that is lively and positive is, not only a beautiful way to celebrate, but it is child-friendly.They can experience a positive interpretation of a sad occasion through remembrance.
Provide the child with an outlet to celebrate the person. Children can remember a loved one through organized crafts and projects, talking, writing, making art or poetry, lighting candles, or through any method of expression that they prefer. They can do a collage of photos to display or write their feelings and memories in a journal. Simply sitting and asking them what they remember about the person can help ease their grief. This will serve them in managing their grief as they experience death in the future.
Give Them Time and Be Patient
Children may seem to bounce back from a trauma quicker than adults, although they may be still struggling on the inside. Continue to provide support, comfort, and the opportunities to talk about their feelings, so they can learn appropriate coping mechanisms.
Patience may be needed with a child that has suffered loss, but you also should have patience with yourself. Find your own ways to cope and manage with the loss so you can provide support when you talk to children about death.
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